MIDDLEBURY – It’s a scene that has played out four years running. And now three years running, the Lady Raiders have had the last laugh.
Everyone attending the Warsaw at Northridge girls soccer game Thursday night expected it to be a close one, and the conclusion played out that way in a 3-2 Northridge win, cinching up the third straight Northern Lakes Conference championship for the Lady Raiders.
And, of course, there was plenty of drama.
In a series that has had this game decide the NLC title in each of the last four years, it was expected that these two would play it tight. It wasn’t looking that way when Emma Oxenrider stabbed home a goal in the ninth minute. The play was set up by a run from Madison Wienert in the corner, who mashed a cross inward hoping to misdirect it. Oxenrider’s honors was a stunning start, which only got more unbelievable in the 33rd minute when another Wienert cross into traffic found Ariana Stoltzfus, who headed in the pinball for a 2-0 lead.
The past three years, a pair of 1-1 ties and a 2-1 Ridge win has been all the grudge match allowed. But a corner kick in the 64th minute by Ridge bounced around a mass of Tiger defenders, squirting to the feet of Mikayla Smith, who did the dirty work for a third and monumental goal.
“Our set pieces are never rushed, they are more methodical,” said Northridge head coach Thavisith Mounsithiraj. “We’re moving people into position. People are finding space. We want the girls to shoot the ball, and when you do, things tend to happen. Tonight we got two goals off of balls that were shot into a crowd and it found its way out and into the net. It’s not always pretty, but sometimes you need a little luck, too.”
At 3-0 with 16 minutes remaining and the No. 7 team in the state up, the match should have been over. Right?
Warsaw’s offense, which had managed just two shots on target up to the Smith goal, finally awoke with that heightened sense of urgency.
A build-up off a counter had a pass find Abby Steffensmeier, who made her shot count right corner to cut the lead to 3-1 in the 69th minute. Steffensmeier, who was hounded all night by a slew of Northridge defenders, again found space and drew a corner on a deflected ball off Hope Stacker’s gloves. The ensuing corner was handled by a Ridge defender in the box, drawing a penalty, which Anna Grill coolly buried to cut the lead to 3-2 with 4:41 to play.
All of a sudden, Ridge was back on its heels and history was starting to repeat itself with second-half rallies deciding matches. The Tiger magic, however, ran out as Ridge cleverly played balls into Warsaw’s corners to waste time, and tightened up its midfield as it counted down to its third straight NLC title.
“I feel like tonight, the second half we opened up quite a bit and played toe-to-toe with a great Northridge team,” said Warsaw head coach Jon Hoover. “Hats off to them. They deserve this conference championship. They were the better team tonight. But I have to credit our girls as well. We didn’t back down. We are down 3-0 and we are still playing hard and trying to make things happen. Hitting the ball over the top and chasing it down. They really stayed composed, even with a few minutes left and it was scramble time, they didn’t lose their focus.”
Added Mounsithiraj of the play of his defense, particularly sweeper Leah Stacker’s marking of Steffensmeier and her ball hawking ability, “This all starts with how well the defense plays. I felt tonight, our defense was so consistent. Leah got to all of the loose balls. She was on everything. Her job was to make sure if anything got through, she takes care of it. And it wasn’t just tonight, she has been doing that for us all year. Our defense has been doing this all year. So credit to them for playing well again in this type of game.”
Warsaw (10-4-1) was playing a huge man short in midfield with the absence of Delaney Taylor. Not cleared medically from an injury, Taylor, the team’s leading scorer, was not pulled out of the lineup until the JV game, but it was clear her absence in the middle of the field left Warsaw somewhat disoriented. The Tigers would take just seven shots in the match, and only four were on target.
Hoover hopes Taylor will be ready to go next week when his club opens the Warsaw Girls Soccer Sectional against Fort Wayne South Side in defense of its sectional crown.
“This team is more than one player, but having Delaney versus not having her makes a huge difference, obviously,” Hoover said. “We just have to refocus and take things one game at a time. It’s all South Side now. We can’t change tonight and we can’t look forward to Huntington North or anyone else. Everything points to Tuesday.”
Warsaw and South Side kick off Tuesday at 6 p.m. Northridge (15-1-1) will meet Elkhart Memorial Tuesday in the Elkhart Central Sectional.